By Aaron Bragman
Luxury pickup trucks are a purely American phenomenon, one that friends in foreign lands have a hard time understanding. But honestly, when you have a big cattle ranch or own a construction company, what are you going to drive to work, a BMW 7 Series?
Of course not; it wouldn't look right.
Instead, the choice for hundreds of thousands of people has been big, expensive luxury trucks from U.S. manufacturers. When you think about it, given the prices, capabilities and luxury equipment, the top-line full-size pickups are the ultimate American luxury vehicles. Much of it started with the model seen here: the Denali trim for the GMC Sierra. It's pretty much the fanciest GM pickup you can buy now that the Cadillac Escalade EXT is history. The Sierra Denali represents the latest high-zoot trimmings and technology from GM.
We've already driven the 2014 GMC Sierra 1500; it did well in our 2013 Light-Duty Challenge, coming in third place and ahead of its counterpart Chevrolet Silverado. We were impressed with many of its characteristics; the Sierra won two of the 13 quantitative contests and came in second in four of them. We also liked it more than any other for exterior styling, and were mightily impressed with its new interior. And this was just the SLE trim, not the luxury Denali trim. See our review of the 2014 GMC Sierra here.
Pony up some extra cash, and you get an even nicer truck than the SLE. Outside, the signature Denali chrome mesh grille is prominent, nestled atop a Denali-specific body-colored bumper and flanked by the standard projector beam headlights that come on all Sierras. Twenty-inch chrome wheels are part of the package, as is a polished stainless-steel exhaust outlet. The look isn't quite as distinctive as it used to be, or perhaps we're just getting used to seeing high-dollar pickups with acres of chrome on lesser models, but it's still dramatic.
Inside, the Denali gets special embossed leather seats, bright door sills and real aluminum metal trim for the dashboard. Again, it looks good, but not all that different from the already upscale interior in lesser Sierras.
The Sierra Denali does feature a few exclusive features, however, including an 8-inch customizable display screen in the gauge cluster that can be tailored to show a variety of things at the driver's preference. The Denali also comes with a standard 8-inch touch-screen featuring GMC's Intellilink, five USB ports for various personal electronics, a Bose audio system, heated and cooled seats, a heated steering wheel, front and rear parking sensors, and a power sliding rear window with defroster. Given that this is the top trim level for the Sierra, it makes sense that it comes loaded.
Exclusive to the Denali and SLT trim levels is the biggest engine available in the latest GM pickups, the 420-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8. It's a monster, providing impressive thrust and 12,000 pounds of maximum towing capacity. My week with it didn't include any towing, but freeway passing and stoplight acceleration was done with ease, accompanied by a throaty soundtrack and fuel economy that hovered right around the 16 mpg mark (the EPA rates the two-wheel-drive version with this engine at 15/21/17 mpg city/highway/combined). Certainly not exactly hybrid levels of efficiency, but for a truck this size with these capabilities, it is as expected.
Driving the Sierra Denali is a serene experience; a lot of attention has been placed on creating an extremely quiet interior. The leather-covered seats are big and cushy, but the super-wide center console actually makes the interior feel more cramped than competitors like the Ram 1500 or Ford F-150. Ride is nicely damped for a big, unladen pickup, and steering is unperturbed by pavement imperfections or even the massive craters that have opened up around Detroit this winter. Just like in lesser Sierras, there's plenty of room in back for passengers as well; nobody has a bad seat in the Denali.
The Sierra Denali is easy to use as well, with the big displays on the center stack and the gauge cluster displaying anything and everything you could possibly need, with simple controls on the multimedia center allowing for quick operation of everything from the navigation system to one's plugged-in iPod. There's still a column shifter for the Sierra, but that frees up room in the center console for more storage, so the rather anachronistic placement isn't a burden.
All that bling and brawn comes at a hefty price, but not one that's outside the competitive realm of luxury pickups. My test truck started at $51,060 including a hefty $1,095 destination fee, adding $450 for the driver alert package (lane departure warning, forward collision alert, rumbling safety alert seat), $1,995 for the 6.2-liter engine, another $995 for a moonroof, $255 for an off-road suspension package, $230 for an integrated trailer brake controller and $200 for all-terrain tires. The grand total for this luxo truck came to $55,185, right in line with competitors like the Ford F-150 Platinum or Ram 1500 Laramie Longhorn. For buyers in the market for the ultimate expression of American luxury trucks, the new Denali still hits all the right marks.
Cars.com photos by Aaron Bragman